By Valerie Baldowski
Neil Taylor trekked 2,179 miles, from Georgia to Maine, and each step brought him closer to the realization of a dream.
Taylor, 61, of Stockbridge, has hiked the Appalachian Trail. He began at Springer Mountain in Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Ga., and ended at Baxter State Park in Millinocket, Me.
Taylor, who retired as an electrician from the General Motors Doraville Plant in 2008, began walking on March 15, and completed his long-distance hike on Oct. 5.
He said the walk was something he had wanted to do for years. "It's kind of hard to put in words, what it meant to me, but it was a life-changing experience," he said. "You can do anything you want to, as long as you take it one step at a time."
Taylor was accompanied by his dog, Belle, a 4-year-old Weimaraner. They had some close calls together. On May 29, Belle slipped off the trail and fell 15 feet into a ravine. Taylor said he had to climb down and rescue her. Other than a few scratches, the dog was not seriously injured.
" [Then,] she fell off a cliff," Taylor said. "I thought she was a goner. She had a cut on her lip. It scared me to death."
In July, Bell caught Lyme Disease, and Taylor hiked to the nearest town to take her to a veterinarian. Taylor followed the vet's prescription, and treated the dog with antibiotics for 30 days to cure the disease.
Taylor weighed 184 pounds when he began his hike, but lost 26 pounds along the way.
"It was physically demanding. It was one of the hardest things I ever did," he said. "My feet went from a size 12 to a size 14. My callouses are just now going away."
A member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Taylor said he paced himself each day.
"It's quite a feat. You had to average 12-and-a-half miles a day, to make it in six months," he said. "They closed Baxter State Park Oct. 15, so you had to finish before then, to be a 'through-hiker.'"
"Through-hikers" are walkers who walk a trail all at once, instead of in sections, he explained. Walkers must finish the Appalachian Trail in one year or less to earn the title, said Taylor.
After leaving Georgia, he and Belle walked through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, before crossing over the state line into Maine.
They encountered hikers from all over the world, including some from Australia, Germany, England, Israel, and France, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
When starting a long trek, like the Appalachian Trail, Taylor said, usually 1,700 or 1,800 hikers begin, but only 300 or 400 actually cross the finish line. The reason, he said, is because of injuries, and the high cost of all the supplies required. Taylor said he spent $3,000 on clothing, backpacks, tents, and hiking poles.
The most challenging part of his hike, he said, was crossing the Great Smoky Mountains, and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. "When I went through the White Mountains, it was beautiful, but it was hard," said Taylor.
Taylor and the other hikers on the trail were careful to stay away from civilization whenever possible, and remain below the "treeline," to avoid harsh weather. Finding a suitable place to pitch camp was also difficult, he said. "One time, I had to walk a mile-and-a-half off the trail, just to find a place to camp."
The best part of the hike were the scenic views, he added. "One thing I liked the most was being able to see long distances," he said. "There was a beautiful view almost every day. It was fabulous," said Taylor.
The grandfather acknowledged that he will have plenty of stories to eventually tell his grandchildren, 5-year-old Kaitlyn Taylor, 4-year-old Alex Shivers, 1-year-old Avery Shivers, and 6-month-old Clayton Taylor.
"I just think he did something really neat," said Johnease Beach, Neil Taylor's sister.
Beach, 56, said her brother prepared in advance for the hike. "He practiced here [in Stockbridge] before he went," she said. "He would just take off walking, and sometimes, he walked seven or eight miles."
Before the hike, she said, Taylor also researched the Appalachian Trail on the Internet, and he talked to hikers who had walked it previously.
Once he began the hike, he was committed to finishing it. He only took one break, in May, added Beach. "He came home for the birth of a grandbaby, and then, he went back and finished," she said.